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What is the Bush Doctrine?

To Lead the World: American Strategy after the Bush Doctrine edited by Melvyn P. Leffler and Jeffrey W. Legro brings together America’s most esteemed writers and thinkers to offer concrete, historically grounded suggestions for how America can regain its standing in the world and use its power more wisely than it has during the Bush years. In the excerpt from the introduction to To Lead the World below, Leffler and Legro explain exactly what the Bush doctrine is, a short lesson that could have benefited Sarah Palin last week when she was interviewed by Charlie Gibson.

The administration of George W. Bush published two national strategy statements. The first statement, issued in September 2002, aroused enormous controversy, and the second did not flinch from its predecessor’s most controversial propositions. The strategy appeared to be a radical departure from the policies that had defined America’s approach to world affairs throughout the cold war and beyond. Seemingly abandoning containment, deterrence, and a reliance on collective action, the Bush strategy called for a policy of unilateral action and preventive war: “Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today’s threats, and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons, do not permit that option. We cannot permit our enemies to strike first.”

The emphasis on a unilateral, preemptive initiative shaped the administration’s reactions to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. President Bush and his advisers decided to destroy the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which had provided shelter to the al Qaeda movement, and to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq for supposedly developing weapons of mass destruction and conspiring with terrorists to attack the United States and its allies. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq form the core of the war on terror. They have consumed thousands of American lives, probably hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan lives, and vast sums of money, likely to exceed a trillion dollars by the end of the decade. They are worth the cost, says President George W. Bush, if they will contribute to a safer, more peaceful world, conducive to the spread of freedom and democracy.

More than any president in recent history, President Bush has defined the nation’s security in terms of the promotion of freedom around the world. All people, he stresses, want freedom. And freedom everywhere, he claims, is essential for the safety of the United States. “The survival of liberty in our land,” he stated in his second inaugural address, “increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” America’s principles, according to Bush, should shape U.S. decisions on international cooperation, foreign assistance, and the allocation of resources.

Bush’s strategy statements contain much more than platitudes about the value of human freedom and dignity. They outline policies that go far beyond the emphasis on unilateral, preemptive military action. Focusing considerable attention on the advantages of an open international economy, they espouse the importance of global economic growth through free markets and free trade. They stress the importance of disseminating the rule of law, promoting sound fiscal, tax, and financial policies, and nurturing investments in health and education. They state that fighting poverty is a “moral imperative,” and they envision doubling the size of the world’s poorest economies within a decade. Fighting disease, they acknowledge, is as important as fighting poverty; indeed, it is a key to fighting poverty. And notwithstanding the emphasis placed on anticipatory unilateral action, the administration’s strategy statements acknowledge the importance of strengthening ties with partners, energizing alliances in Asia, and building and expanding NATO.

However comprehensive the strategy statements have been, the war on terror and the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan have consumed the attention of the administration and its critics. In the past few years, book after book has appeared discussing the shortsightedness and ineptitude of the administration’s actions in Iraq. So vast is this literature and so focused has been the administration’s defense of its actions in Iraq that most of us have lost sight of the larger issues of national security. Yet the larger context is essential for evaluating the merits of the case in Iraq. Probing questions have arisen about the centrality of that conflict for the war on terror in general. And even more fundamental inquiries have arisen about the logic of a war on terror when some commentators maintain that the threat has been hugely exaggerated, that the concept itself—a war on terror—unwisely conflates terrorist groups, and that it makes little sense because terror is a tactic, not an adversary. And in its second term, the Bush administration itself appears to have backed away in practice from the defining traits of its doctrine such as preventive action, unilateralism, and aggressive democratization. The puzzle that faces America is: what should come next?

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  1. […] Bush Doctrine actually is (instead of my argument for what it practically amounts to) you can go here for a fine discussion. A key quotation: “Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the […]

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